A Universal Basic Income (UBI) is:
A cash benefit that is: universal – paid to everyone in the population; individual – paid to each adult rather than as a single household payment and; unconditional – paid without means testing or conditions with regard to family or employment status (McLean, 2016).
UBI has recently become the focus of attention from both right and left-wing politicians and activists, triggered by the increased use of digital technologies and the projected loss of jobs, particularly white-collar jobs. It is also coupled with the growth of economic insecurity throughout the world, with an increase in precarious work, which is not just about lack of control over work and pay but includes a lack of protection against dismissal and unfair working practices. This affects both women and men.
Whether or not UBI provides additional benefits for women is subject to debate. The Welfare State was built on a series of assumptions about the primacy of the male breadwinner and their entitlement to welfare benefits. This has been the subject of extensive critiques and UBI has brought some of the same issues into focus, which include payment for work in the household and participation of women in the labour force.
There are dangers for women in the introduction of UBI. Large cash grants may reinforce women’s traditional role by encouraging them to return to providing care and household services (Meulders, 2016). This would reduce women’s participation in the labour force which has contributed to their independence and increased status.
Any UBI programme has to be designed carefully if women are not to be affected negatively. The provision of child care and other labour force supports can help to give women economic autonomy and control. However, we need to be aware that in a climate of reduced social security benefits, UBI would not necessarily be supported by well- funded, publicly-run public services.
The level of UBI and its place in the social security system will also influence the impact that it has on women. It is essential that UBI is targeted and paid to individuals rather than households and dependent relationships. If the level is too low then UBI will not be effective in changing women’s position in society (Pateman, 2006). If women can combine paid employment with the receipt of UBI then it has the potential to reduce and prevent poverty. As women often earn less than their partners, UBI can increase their bargaining power in the household (McLean, 2016).
The importance of work and the role that it plays in the lives of individual workers is frequently left out of an analysis of UBI. There is an assumption that if people are released from low skill, monotonous jobs then their lives will be improved. Work reforms have led to workers having less control over the labour process. Consequently the sense of value and meaning within work is lost. There is no recognition of the sense of purpose that meaningful work can bring. For women who have entered the labour force and established greater independence, there is no
discussion of what meaningful work might be in the future. This would have to look at not just the meaning of work but the meaning in work (dignity/decent work) and the meaning gained from work (Madden, 2016).
Paid employment has often provided women with workplace networks and additional settings within which to express themselves. The recognition of what meaningful work gives to women has to be incorporated into debates about UBI. This could focus on how to distribute existing jobs more equitably. The New Economics Foundation has estimated that if everyone worked for 21 hours per week, this would eliminate the part/full time work distinction which negatively affects women and would also create jobs.
The individualism of UBI, which provides an income to every citizen, places much greater emphasis on individual responsibilities and will not solve the problems of precarious work. Once each individual receives an income from the state they may have to organise other forms of social support themselves, which until now has been an integral part of Welfare State reforms.
Within the context of continuing Welfare State reforms, UBI is being presented as a solution to a set of problems that require a much more comprehensive vision. Since the future of work and of workers has been questioned (Gortz, 1980; Standing, 2011; Standing, 2016), UBI should only be seen as part of a set of solutions for an expanded social infrastructure which can be addressed by providing public services which meet the changing needs of individuals at different times of their lives. This would include a wider range of social rights and interventions such as child care, care for older people/ people with disabilities, access to a comprehensive national education service and other policies which are not just income focused. It will require some fundamental changes in attitudes to work and how people use their own time (Cooley, 1987). This is particularly important for women who often have more flexible ways of seeing their own time in relation to work and the household than men do.
Without these wider changes, a UBI will lead to continued low pay subsidised by the state. Arguments for the importance of work outside the household are needed at a time when many jobs are being abolished. This is particularly important for women for whom paid employment is an important source of financial and social independence. UBI is not an easy solution to technological change.
Dr. Jane Lethbridge
Director, Public Services International Research Unit (PSIRU), Business Faculty, University of Greenwich.